Questions over LAUSD chief's extended medical leave intensify as new semester begins

The Los Angeles Unified School District is poised to start the spring semester next week amid lingering questions about when ailing Supt. Michelle King will return to the job, leaving what some see as a leadership gap in the face of daunting challenges.

Though day-to-day decision-making has been handed over to an acting superintendent, King’s long-term strategic plan has been in limbo during her four-month absence. Some efforts, including one to reduce the number of students who miss weeks of school, appear to be moving forward without King.

L.A. Unified is confronting budget deficits, labor negotiations and internal disagreements over reform strategies.

“You can’t have a ship without a captain,” said Victoria Castro, a school board member from 1993 to 2001. “I feel that Michelle is holding the district or board members hostage by not disclosing her illness. We’re all being held hostage because of her illness and of having no definite date of her return.”

King has been on medical leave, for an undisclosed condition, since September. In her most recent public communication, in October, King had stated she would return “after the first of the year.” She was more specific in a confidential December communication to the Board of Education, saying she’d be back Jan. 22, according to sources who were not authorized to speak for the district.

Earlier this week, the district was vague about when King would return. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman said the superintendent planned to return Jan. 22.

However, several senior district leaders have privately expressed concern about whether she will be back at work by then. They spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the matter.

King has continued to receive her full $350,000-a-year salary while on sick leave. Over her L.A. Unified career, she has accumulated more than a year of unused sick time.

Board member Nick Melvoin said he and other board members understand that the public wants more clarity about King’s future.

“While I respect her privacy in this sensitive matter, it is important that our employees, families and constituents get more information soon as they put their trust in district leadership to successfully run the second-largest school district in the country,” Melvoin said.

Former board member Marlene Canter said King and the board need to strike a better balance between King’s right to privacy and the openness that comes with a position of major public importance.

“None of us have ever come across a situation like this,” said Canter, a board member from 2001 to 2009. “This is someone in the public eye, and yet you have no idea what is wrong or when she is coming back. I believe that it is the board’s responsibility as public officials to always remain transparent.”

In King’s place, as acting superintendent, is veteran senior administrator Vivian Ekchian, who is not afraid to assert authority. She did not hesitate to close 265 schools for two days in December because of fire threats and poor air quality.

For their part, board members have continued to approve policies and programs that require extensive oversight by senior management.

Ekchian is filling that role impressively and no leadership crisis is imminent, said board member Richard Vladovic.

“The district has continued its momentum forward,” Vladovic said. “I’m anxious because I want a friend to come back who has much more to offer.”

The Board of Education selected King in January 2016. A career L.A. Unified insider, she rose with good reviews to the No. 2 leadership position, but had never led a school system. She brought to the job strong internal support but a certain discomfort in the spotlight and a degree of inaccessibility, even before her ailment, that contrasted with her predecessors.

King’s major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. Her major initiative going forward has been to expand the number of schools with special programs to offset declining enrollment caused by the growth of independently operated charter schools.

But a new school board majority, which took control last July, was elected with substantial backing from charter-school supporters. It was unclear, just before King’s departure, how well her priorities would mesh with those of the new board leadership.

Ekchian now has the complicated task of carrying out King’s vision on behalf of a board that is not united behind King. Meanwhile, the rumor mill is flooded with theories and so-called confirmed accounts about what has sidelined King.

King, 56, had difficulty moving about during her last board meeting on Sept. 12. Her medical leave began Sept. 15, though no announcement was made. On Oct. 7, she emailed senior staff that Ekchian temporarily would take over and that her doctor would reevaluate her condition at the end of the month. Two weeks later, King announced the extension of her absence until January.

"As I continue to recover from my medical procedure, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for your countless well wishes and unwavering support," King wrote in an email to all district staff. "To keep you updated, I anticipate returning to the office after the first of the year."

For the most part, the conduit between King and the board has been board president Monica Garcia. King also has had some contact with Ekchian, although King does not appear to be trying to run the district through Ekchian.

King’s contract guarantees only a 90-day severance, but California law provides protections for employees on medical leave. At the same time, King’s physical ability to carry out the work could factor into a performance evaluation.

Former board member Valerie Fields, who has battled health problems, is sympathetic to serious medical challenges, but she finds the L.A. Unified status quo so vexing that she overcame severe back pain to get to the phone.

“I can’t imagine what the board of General Motors would do if their chief executive was not on the job,” said Fields, who served from 1997 to 2001. “What do you think they would do? This is even more important because it deals with the lives of children.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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